A fan in the corner of the room moved to the left, to the right, to the left, trying to budge the inertia of stagnant air but only making a buzz. The AC was busted. Ezra sat with his heels against the wall, his back on his bed, a song that Jay showed him playing on his laptop. He watched the shadows of branches dance above his toes, on the wall that was white but looked blue that afternoon. The limbs of dark faded in and out of existence. A drawing without lines, at one moment arms in the air, the next a dandelion blown to bits. The song hummed electricity run through wire, held to earth with piano.
Ezra turned his head, noticed a spider on the floor. He walked to his bookshelf and ripped out a piece of paper from a sketchbook. He let the tiny thing crawl onto the sheet of white then lifted the paper to the windowsill, popped the screen. The spider lingered on a leaf of a wilting bush of white roses he used to water. He thought of last summer—the spider webs evaporated by rain, the sound of the bugs he couldn’t see, how Jay, drunk, taught him to flex when mosquitoes bit him, getting bit again and again, until one bug vanished into a flat stain. Ezra wiped the smudge, his own blood, from his arm with his thumb. Jay grabbed his wrist, looked at it and laughed, said, “Little fucker walked onto an IED.” It wasn’t funny, but Ezra still laughed.
He unfolded back into bed, looking out the window, then at his thighs. He scratched at his leg, watching flakes of skin take flight, then fire in the acute triangle of sun coppering half his room and his body. His sketchbook rested on his chest. He opened it up and drew a boy or a man. He never decided on a body in particular. It was always a hip, a shoulder, a collarbone, a neck, all holding in negative space.
“Hey—don’t be scare—”
Ezra flinched at the bass of a voice like his dad’s. Then he pulled on his pants when he saw Jay standing in his garden, in his rose bush.
“I told you,” Jay showed his teeth, wincing, not smiling, “not to be scared.”
“You snuck up on me—wait, are you okay?”
“Ate shit. Rag-dolled. Can I come in?” Ezra had never seen Jay shake like that, as if he was cold. Ezra backed away.
He dragged in mud on the bottom of his Vans, flopping down on the bed, cradling his left arm. Ezra looked at it, how the wound dried brown, how a thin coat of orange plasma, like a primer on canvas, leaked out, matted down his grassy hairs. He always considered colors. Jay was talking about something, probably how he fell, but Ezra just looked at the pink, red, and black where the street had cut Jay the deepest. Jay got up and darkened the corner of the room with his board, Ezra watching him in the white tiled bathroom as he pulled his shirt up in front of the mirror, looking at his waist, swollen pink from road rash and stripped to blood in long patches. Jay prodded the wounds with his thumb, wincing, then, oddly, tugged at the folds of his stomach, then flicked his eyes up and noticed Ezra watching. He tugged his shirt down and flipped on the faucet. Ezra buttoned his pants.
“Your headphones broke,” Jay spoke into the sink that hissed warm water.
“You broke them?” Ezra noticed a clay-colored stain the size of a dime on his sheets.
“Yeah, they broke. I owe you.” As he said this, Ezra came to Jay’s side, pulled open the mirror, grabbed bandages and rubbing alcohol. They didn’t look at each other.
“I don’t need anything.” Jay was still trembling.
“Let me clean it.”
“I don’t need that.” Jay pulled away from him when Ezra held his wrist.
Ezra uncapped the clear bottle with his teeth, spat the cap and, before pouring it on Jay’s forearm, said, “Seriously, stop being such a bitch.”
Jay made a fist in the sink. The skinless spot looked yellow, with a web of shallow rivers pounding fresh red up. Jay noticed a section of the wall, plaster that had been punched through.
He told Jay, “Hold still,” digging his fingernails in the raw, yanking out triangularout bits triangular bits of asphalt. The bleeding got worse. But he ran water over the wound, and with his pinky thumb, he spread the antibiotic cream, before bandaging him tight, with a bit of room to breathe. Jay didn’t need Advil. He said so, while tightening his knuckles around the sink wet from warm water and thin blood.
Jay went back by the window, while Ezra scrubbed away the rosy stains in the sink. Ezra, watching Jay on the bed examine the bandages, said, “Just take it off when it scabs over.”
Jay turned and looked out the window into the dry garden with the dirty sun on his face. They heard a distant rumble, a roller coaster going up or maybe a freight train going west, and Jay asked, “You got any weed?”
“I’ve got cigs?”
Ezra walked to his dresser and pulled out a white pouch with a red star, the same brand his dad piled into suitcases when they had to leave their house by the Black Sea when the bombs fell, hearing thunder with no rain. The news called it annexation. He plucked a lighter with little lemons from his bookshelf and some rolling papers. Ezra sat at the end of the bed, loose bits of brown tobacco falling in his lap. Jay looked around the room, the bookshelf, the glistening Chanel bottle from a grandmother, the street maps that could show anywhere, the vertebrae above the collar of Ezra t-shirt, making a small hill of skin on his curved neck. Ezra made it perfect and rolled a second.
Jay extended a peace sign. Their fingers touched when Ezra passed it to him. The cigarette see-sawed Jay’s teeth as he stared at the ceiling. Ezra felt something like deja-vu, as if he’d lived that day before with Jay, on their backs, sipping smoke in that same stale light. Ezra counted his teeth with his tongue. French inhaled. The end had been softened by Jay’s spit. Jay cradled the smoke in his mouth before letting it slip out. They both sweated and were still. The fan buzzed.
“You know tobacco’s an insecticide?” Jay blew smoke through his nose.
“I do.” Another bug flew in from the window, buoyant in the air. It trapped itself in the corner, slamming into one wall and then the other, pausing flat on the ceiling. Jay watched the string of blue smoke rise, become thick, before trembling and dissipating when the fan turned.
“You think he knows he’s being watched?”
“I don’t think he cares. His life span’s too short.”
Ezra watched the grey dot against the white ceiling, before it disappeared for a second in a crack of water damage.
“What do you think he’s thinking about?”
“What gradient of white he’s gonna slam into, I guess.”
“There’s gonna be more and more of those things.”
“What do you mean?”
“Like, the more whacked out our seasons get, the longer those things have time to eat and fuck and make wiggly, larvae babies.”
They watched it bounce around a while. Jay said, “And then they basically defoliate—eat the leaves off of everything. So less and less shade, everywhere. And they’re evolving into new things in the places they’re at, and winding up in places they’ve never been, because it’s warm everywhere all the time.”
Ezra breathed out smoke. “The locust.”
“It’ll start raining blood any day now.”
“If it rains.”
Ezra turned to the window, watched a ladybug cross a browning flower.
“I was reading about that, how it was actually red algal blooms in the Nile, from warm water or silt deposits or something, that gave it the blood color. They flipped out and made it mean something.”
They were both tired of hearing Jay speak. The silence stayed between them before Jay asked, “You wanna go to the pool?”
“You can’t swim for a bit. Your wound will get infected.”
Jay looked at the raised pink skin, spreading out from under the bandage, an unspoken “too late” hanging between them.“I’ll just dip my legs in and cool off. And this fan isn’t doing shit for me.”
“Why can’t you go back to your place? It’s always cold there.” Ezra flicked ash out the window.
“My mom’s flipping out over some bullshit.”
Jay got up, asked Ezra, “Can I pick a song?” His finger flicked at the blue masking tape over the tiny camera, which humidity was peeling away from the slick metal.
He said to Jay, “You’re already over the keyboard.”
Jay typed something in, scrolled, pressed play, then shuffled into the bathroom to throw up. The song started with a deep melody, with each pluck at the bass reverberating. The snare gave it a repetition, sounding like the steady beat of tracks on MARTA. But there was something else that gave it distance, something sidereal, maybe even magic.
Ezra listened over the sound of Jay’s vomit splashing against the water in the bowl beneath the main hook. Being alone felt like a breath out.
Jay threw open the door, wiping the spit from his lips, his eyes bloodshot, which made them more blue, brought out the green that was scattered like shrapnel in his eyes. He sat down, and they listened.
“Don’t give me a cigarette next time.”
“You always ask for one. And you always get sick.”
“Well, be the bigger man for me.” Jay got back on the bed.
“You have to go. My dad already thinks I’m gay.”
“Thinks?” Jay didn’t look at Ezra as he walked through the window. Ezra noticed the angle his arm was at, how much Jay looked like a hurt little kid. He imagined what Jay would look like if he stood up straight, shoulders back as if he didn’t have to hide something.
Ezra got up, and said, “I’ll come to the pool with you.”
The soil had no softness. It caved under their feet as the sound of Aquemini faded away.
It hadn’t rained since Jay dropped out of school three months ago. But despite the drought and the quick reminders after public access to take ten minute showers, water kept pumping into the park for sunburnt people to stand in lines with pink tubes, to float and piss in lazy concrete rivers, candy-colored rides, before and between standing in lines, eating fried food and drinking carbonated drinks. It was around noon when they passed the lot that smelled like chlorine and exhaust between the White Water and the Six Flags. The heat of the sun was indifferent to shade, and there wasn’t any. One of the rust-colored roller coasters arcing out of the trees rattled down again. Ezra watched their shadows, opaquely black yet fluid.
Ezra burned halfway there. He didn’t mind the dull heat that would stay under his skin. He liked to tug it off in long strips. They walked past the busted fire hydrant that leaked downhill. Earlier that week, he watched Jay skate through the mist, shattering the arc of color that hung in the droplets, vaporized by his frame. Now water came from it inconsistently, crawling across the ground, gathering up powdery dirt. They walked away from the road, across grass yellow, stained with grey. The pines were spaced apart but looked thick from a distance.
“I think I’ve been here before. Are the tracks up there?’
“I think so.” Ezra noticed how the brown needles in the dirt were laid too neatly, too far from the trees where they should’ve fallen. He thought of how easily everything around them could burn.
“Yeah, I’ve been here before. It smells familiar.”
“Uh, yeah.” He grinned. “I was here with Amanda.”
“Swiped my V card.”
“Inserted the chip.” Jay laughed alone. Ezra watched his shadow slant.
“Do you still talk to her?”
“Fuck no. Yup, it was under that tree with the three orange stripes.”
“The one all marked up with orange paint.”
Ezra looked past it all, past the trees that gave no shade. The road was peeking out in the distance. A blue and yellow dome jutted into the sky. It was called the Cyclone, and he remembered how that slide opened when he’d first moved here. He looked at his fingers, yanked at a hangnail. He imagined his and her body pink, in the dirt at night. The sun stayed in the sky, and they continued talking about sex and the state of the world.
They passed over the tracks. Jay laid down and put his ear on the metal with his eyes closed. Jay asked, “When was the last time you were on a train?”
He looked down the tracks, rusted the color of dried blood. The light became a hazy gold above their heads. He said, “I think I was with my Dad. When I was little,” then remembered resting his face against the glass on the train without remembering how old he was or where they were going, the grey green of the trees rushing by as if gravity changed its directions and the earth started to fall away.
The sun whitened Jay’s face with his head on the ground.
Ezra said, “He taught me to box. He was a boxer when he was a kid and a little after that when it was still the Eastern Bloc. And he got thrown out of high school for breaking a teacher’s jaw.”
“Shit—I can’t hear anything.” Jay got up and wiped red dirt off his pants.
Ezra continued, “He won some tournaments, too.”
“Were the tournaments like, in taverns? With goats and toothless dudes on hay bales?”
“He almost went to the fucking Olympics.”
Ezra felt his blood get hot, then Jay spoke again, asking, “So he taught you to fight?”
“Box, when I was little.” As he spoke, Jay turned the more freckled side of his face towards him, listening.
Ezra said, “I punched the bag and I kept punching it and he was yelling at me to do it faster, and he did it with me—and at the end he picked me up and spun me around a bit.”
Jay said, “I wish someone would teach me how to fight.”
When they got to the pool, he planned to hold Jay underwater, make him writhe.
Ezra said, “My dad and I haven’t boxed in a while.”
Jay turned on his heel, squared up, and Ezra told him, “Your stance is off.” Jay shuffled forward, feigned a hook that cut the air inches in front of his face. Ezra stepped back, felt his upper lip quiver into a sneer.
He said, “You dropped your arms after your swing.”
“Well, my arm’s already busted up. And getting a little sweaty.”
Jay started to peel the bandage off. The scab hadn’t hardened. Tugged by the adhesive on the bandage, his wound was milky yolk floating, loosely glued above where the skin wasn’t. Prodding the wound down his arm, Jay said, “It’s weird how wet we all are inside.”
Ezra looked at him unsure what their bodies would do next. Then they turned their heads to the sound like a crunch that wouldn’t stop. Four skaters, a lot younger but more muscular, ripped down the hill. They slid. They flipped. They cracked the backs of their boards against the ground and became aloft. Most of them were smiling. He stopped and watched.
Jay said, “Fucking trick boards.”
With that, they turned and kept walking to the pool. They talked about jazz in Japan, water on other planets. The sound of the skaters became more distant. When the chlorine stung their noses, Jay yanked off his shirt and walked with more of a hunch, his arms across his chest. Ezra noticed how angular his wounds were. The edge of one abrasion could have been the shore of a continent.
Ezra had been at the pool before—in a car, in the parking lot in front of the gates, at one in the morning, during winter but when it stopped being cold. He and this guy he met on an app were in the backseat. His teeth chattered as if it were snowing, and this guy’s coffee-flavored saliva dried on his neck, thighs, and hair. Something felt like it had popped. When they got back in the front, the guy reached over and burrowed his fingernails in his hair. They didn’t speak.
That night, Ezra got back to his place, came in the back door, went into his room, sat on the toilet for a while. He watched black, almost brown fluid drop and ripple and cloud the clarity of the still water. That night, in bed, he listened to OutKast. He called Jay. It went to voicemail.
He never texted that guy back. He laid awake, wanting to be held and for it to feel alright. He wanted to run, to drive, to fuck, to kick down doors, to be touched and untouchable. He thought about the worlds built in the music Jay bumped his head to—College Park, Savannah, Fayetteville, Carol City, all minutes, hours, worlds away. He wanted a new place where he didn’t have to sit around in stink.
“Well, shit.” Jay’s voice was louder than usual.
Ezra looked at Jay standing at the edge of the pool, and Jay waved his hand. He went to him, and they looked into the empty pool, the concrete on the bottom slick with green chlorine, gathering and dissolving magnolia leaves. They heard the rattle of a roller coaster muffled by space.
Ezra sweated. His feet were still white as the bleached concrete they stood on. He felt his thirst in his throat, and the heat was heavy on his bones.
Jay spat dryly and unremarkably into the empty pool, said, “I guess we gotta go back now.” He tugged his shirt back on.
Halfway home, he pulled out the second cigarette. He’d forgotten his lighter. They heard the train howl and Jay held out a white lighter he’d lifted from the BP up the street from their places. “I gotcha.”
He covered the flame with his hand, even though there was no wind. The clouds became a sort of pink only possible from pollution, as the sky became a deeper blue. The clouds turned from pink, to red, then after the sun had gone and its heat stayed, purple, then nothing but dark above their heads. They watched it together.
“Your phone charged?”
Ezra said, “Yeah?”
“You wanna play music?”
“I’m actually okay with quiet.” Ezra noticed a dollop of the moon hanging low in the half-dark. Dull yellow light from the amusement park bled into the dark, as the two became blue without shadows.
“It’s just, I can sort of smell the river.”
They breathed in the wind that smelled like water and things rotting until they were soft and together at the bottom of the Chattahoochee.
The streetlights flicked on. Ezra and Jay’s shadows were long, spun like time-lapsed sundials as they moved until they were beneath a new light, the cycle beginning again. The sterile orange light erased any color caught in their skin.
“You wanna stop a second?”
Jay turned, said, “For sure.”
They sat, passing the cigarette, everything silent save for the sound of trains whistling away. The hairs on their legs touched a little. Jay ripped at the grass.
The hiss of sprinklers hung in the air.
“Is that the golf course over there?”
Jay said, “Yeah.”
“My dad took me there when I was a kid. He thought it was some sort of meadow. We had a picnic there. Then this caddy pulled up and was like, ‘what’re you doing?’ and explained what golf was. My dad’s English was okay, but he couldn’t understand what golf was.”
Jay smiled for what felt like the first time in a while. Ezra noticed a mosquito fattening itself on Jay’s neck, the body of the bug hardly larger than the beads of sweat next to it. “There’s a bug biting you.” He reached out.
“I know.” Jay scooted over.
He felt the space between them. “You’re not gonna kill it?”
Jay considered for a second. “I kinda like biting. And everybody needs to eat.” The mosquito buzzed away by his ear.
They were quiet for a while until Jay said, “My mom told me that it was because my blood was sweet. That’s why the bugs liked me.”
Ezra stomped on the butt like it hurt him. They got up and kept walking. At the end of the road, he stopped. He heard the words as they rose up from his throat. He breathed out, “I want to fight you.”
Jay smiled at him. “What?”
“I want to fight you.”
Back straight, Jay said, “I don’t want to hurt you, Ez.”
“Then no face shots then.” Ezra heard his voice clearly this time.
“I don’t want to hurt you.” Jay rolled his broad shoulders. Then he looked at one of the houses in the dark, washed electric blue from a TV left on.
Ezra said, louder than he expected, “Put your hands up.” He hated the grin on Jay’s face, wanted to rip the muscles that contorted that smile off the bone. He lurched forward, his body followed his fist. Jay sidestepped and he jabbed left, right. Jay’s palm stung against his wrist, throwing his arm in the air.
“Fucking fight me.” Ezra was trembling, and his knuckles throbbed. He walked back. Jay was still grinning.
“You good, dude?”
Ezra didn’t feel himself breathing anymore. Neither of them knew how to fight. They lost control of their bodies when they locked together. They tried to drown one another in the pavement, the air, the dark, a bicep.
He gurgled a little. Jay let up pressure on his trachea and asked, “You good?”
“You choked me.”
“Are you actually crying?” The abyss of Jay’s pupils swallowed the blue.
“You choked me.”
Ezra hated Jay’s body, wanted to dig his nails into it, untether the tissue from the bone.
Jay backed up, lowered his arms to his chest. Ezra breathed through his teeth. Their shadows met against the ground. They didn’t hear bugs, cars, the dull throb of the same channel behind closed doors.
Ezra pummeled him. Cornered him, thrust his knuckles in his gut, until his biceps burned.
Jay pulled himself off the street. “Al-Alright—Ez!”
Ezra didn’t let up. Jay grappled him, pressed his palm against his nose as hard as he could, scratched his gums. They broke apart and saw each other, as if for the first time.
Ezra lunged. His jab hit Jay’s elbow and ripped open the wound.
“Motherfucker!” Jay stepped back, pale, his jaw trembling, blood rising out of a wound made fresh. Ezra dropped his arms and stepped forward. His mouth made a circle to release a word, before Jay’s knuckles clapped against the side of his head. Gravity became realer than it had ever been.
Ezra realized that his body was limp against the pavement when the world went from bleach white to some haze of purple past the street lights. He brought his fingers to his left eye, which was wet, swollen shut. He heard ringing, the sound of an airplane. He tasted iron.
“Ezra—shit Ez I didn’t mean to—are you okay?”
Ezra started to get up on his own. The pavement warmed his palms. Everything felt light, like he was at the bottom of a still sea, stirred by infrequent currents. Jay yanked Ezra up by the shoulders, and he saw that he was scared.
“I’m sorry, man. I didn’t mean to—you know I didn’t—are you okay?”
He didn’t say anything. He didn’t look at Jay’s eyes, lips. His body crumbled, and Jay held him up. He felt Jay’s blood dampen the back of his neck. He felt Jay’s shoulder and collarbone against his cheek. He felt himself breathing again. He felt the heat and humidity of the night air that would only get hotter.
“Drought” by Tommy Lambert appeared in Issue 40 of Berkeley Fiction Review.
Tommy Lambert grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. He is very honored to be published in Berkeley Fiction Review, and in debt to everyone who gave him books, music, and laughter.